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Berger Chevrolet

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by John Gunnell  More from Author

Born in Detroit; Made Legendary in Grand Rapids!

Berger Chevrolet of Grand Rapids, Michigan, is a legend among Chevy performance car fans due to its long and ongoing history, as well as the unique niche it carved out in the musclecar era. While Yenko, Nickey, Baldwin, Fred Gibb and Bill Thomas made history selling dealer-hot-rodded Chevys, Berger focused chiefly on the sale of high-performance Chevy hardware. Before we get to that, let’s look at how Berger grew in the 40 years between 1925 and 1965.

 

First 40 Years

William H. Berger, a farmer who lived in Jenison, Michigan, founded Berger Chevrolet in 1925. Thinking the future looked bleak for farmers, Berger had taken work at a Chevy dealership in Grand Rapids. He was good at selling cars and became sales manager. Berger saw great opportunities in the car business and purchased his own Chevy franchise. He opened an agency near the corner of Wealthy and Diamond streets in southeast Grand Rapids. Business was slow. Many weeks he went without a paycheck so he could pay his employees.

By 1930, America was hit by the Great Depression. Car sales were terrible, but Berger had a wife and three sons to provide for and decided to move to a far bigger building on Lake Drive. There he had a four-car showroom and 15 service stalls. The business kept going and actually had a couple of decent years in the mid-’30s. By the late ’30s, Americans saw Hitler ravaging Europe and anyone who could afford to, started buying cars to drive during a war.

With World War II and car production halted in 1942, William H. and his son Dale found themselves with no new cars to sell. To keep the store going they sold stoves, refrigerators, washers and dryers. They also sold two-wheel trailers, mainly to get tires, which were in short supply.

There was no auto production until 1946 and every car dealer had a long list of customers waiting for cars. That lasted until 1949, the year Chevrolet introduced its first all-new postwar car. In 1950, business temporarily boomed, but the Korean Action started and put the damper back on for a few years. The war in Korea ended in 195, and business quickly improved. In 1955, Chevy’s all-new car with Ferrari-inspired looks and a 265-cid overhead-valve V-8 started the company on the road to high performance and ever-increasing sales.

The ’55 Chevy was one of the best-selling cars of that era and prompted Berger Chevrolet to open a second used car lot at 1564 S. Division Avenue, the busiest street in Grand Rapids. Dale Berger Jr. entered the business and went to the GM Institute to further his knowledge of the retail automobile business.

Dale Jr. graduated from college in 1958, the year a recession hit. He started working in Berger’s parts department, where he served as a counterman until 1962. Chevrolet came out with another all-new car in 1959 and, as the economy got rolling again, business improved. Berger Chevrolet then had a total of 33 employees, most were veterans of the two wars.

The ’60 Chevys boomed for Berger, despite an 11-week strike in the fall of 1960 that depleted the new-car inventory. With people spreading out to suburbs, there were more multi-car families and this meant Berger needed more room. At age 79, William H. Berger purchased 5.2 acres of land on 28th Street and construction began on a new, state-of-the-art facility completed in January 1966. 

The High-Performance Parts Years

By two months after the new facility opened, Berger Chevrolet became the largest volume Chevrolet dealer in Western Michigan. In a period of three months, employment went from 40 to 75 employees. That allowed the dealership to expand in a variety of ways and, in 1968, Berger opened one of the first high-performance parts departments in the country. While this department was in operation between 1968 and 1975, it made musclecar history.

It was during this era that Jim Luikens, of Grand Rapids, became Berger’s high-performance parts specialist. Jim raced NHRA Sportsman Class behind the wheel of a Pontiac first built when he was 19. His “Poncho” ran so well that he came to the attention of Berger. Late in 1968, he was asked to join the High Performance Parts Department they were developing. He was appointed department manager within 18 months and over the next five years, built Berger into the number one Chevy high-performance parts outlet in the United States.

After attending the 2010 SEMA Show, Jim got sick and was hospitalized for about two months. He spoke to Auto Trader Corvette & Chevy from his hospital bed, days before being released in January. Luikens said he worked in the High Performance Parts Department-which he says was really a racing department-from November of 1968 to 1975. In June of 1970, the dealership’s racing manager left to go into his own business and Jim took his job. He stayed until 1975, when he left to work for Mr. Gasket.

According to Jim, Berger did a few Yenko-style big-block engine conversions, but the focus changed. “Doing car conversions wasn’t our bread and butter,” he explained. “This was the time of Vietnam and a lot of soldiers would write us and tell us that they would be getting out of the service soon and wanted to build a hot car. Early on, R. Dale Berger, Jr., realized that, for every person who could afford a 427 Camaro conversion, there were millions of racers who built their own cars for circle track or straight-line competition. So he decided to specialize in selling the parts they would need to do that.”

Jim told us that there was a “pecking order” at the dealership, but that he leap-frogged to the racing manager job because of his racing experience. And he explained that it wasn’t an easy job, because in those days fast shippers like UPS did not have authority to service the entire country. “When I shipped an order, I would have to go to the post office and wait on line,” Jim explained.

According to Jim Luikens, Berger pioneered things like big ads for engines. “There was no such thing as Tire Rack type advertising and mail-order sales of big items before we did it,” Jim believes. “We had a very good advertising agency named Johnson & Dean to help us sell parts. We advertised, we priced them right and we sold racing and high-performance parts like crazy.”

In 1963, GM management had issued an edict telling its divisions to get out of racing. It was still effective in 1968 and Chevrolet developed a system of identifying its factory go-fast hardware by obscure listings in parts books. In effect, Chevy and other divisions “hid” their involvement in the performance market in plain view. Any dealer could order any part Chevy offered, but many parts people didn’t know how to order what their customers who raced needed.

In essence, Jim “cracked the secret codes” a parts specialist needed to understand how to order special hi-po factory parts. Then he had to get them to the customer. With R. Dale Berger, Jr.’s backing, he created a catalog that listed the parts and advertised his catalog in trade and enthusiast publications.

Johnson & Dean created a series of consumer ads that showed Luikens and heralded his experience. They listed key parts with prices. The “personality” ads predated the use of company spokesmen, like Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca, in ad campaigns.” Our ads were the first to sell a person and his credibility,” Luikens stressed. ”Others let the product star, but we let people play that role and our ads were 40 years ahead of their time and downright futuristic.”

Appearing in ads was fun, but Jim’s job wasn’t all photo ops or all about him. “Many times I would get up at 10 p.m. to open up for racers who needed parts for a race,” Jim recalled. Others were involved, too. Mike Wawee worked as Berger’s high-performance car salesman. “He fielded the letters from Vietnam and worked up quotes for them,” Luikens noted. “I thought the world of him for that. We just had a magical group that was in the right place at the right time.”

The Berger name was on a number of racing cars like the NHRA funny cars of “Jungle Jim” Liberman and Pete Seaton, Jim Bucher’s NHRA Top Fuel dragster, J. D. McDuffie’s NASCAR Grand National racer, Charlie Glotzbach’s USAC stock car and Jim Butcher’s Can-Am machine. Area oval tracker John Benson Sr. and a host of local drag racers got additional sponsorship money.

By 1973, Berger was number one seller of Chevy high-performance parts in the United States. Sales exceeded $1 million dollars each in calendar years 1973 and 1974. While still an impressive amount today, that was a remarkable dollar figure for the mid-’70s. “I felt like I was the everyman racer’s friend back then,” Luikens said. “But the catalytic converter came along, performance dried up and I left at a really good time.” Later, Chevrolet released the first of their series of Chevy Power books. These incorporated many of the features, like part numbers, specs and torque values that had been found in the Berger catalogs.

 

Not All Muscle

In 1970, Berger Chevrolet got the largest new-car order in its history. The City of Grand Rapids ordered 293 cars, some of which are still in use. In October 1972, William H. Berger passed away at 86. In 1973, the service department and body shop were expanded and an additional freestanding building was built to house Dale Berger Sr.’s car collection. Oil embargoes, emission controls and high insurance killed the muscle car era and the high-performance parts department was phased out. Berger did sell 474 Vegas that year!

In 1977, Dale Berger Sr. retired from the business financially. Berger continued to grow and need space, so an additional 3.2 acres were purchased to the west of the main facility for a used car lot with construction beginning in 1979. In the ’80s, interest rates and poor business evolved from rising gas prices. Dale Berger Jr. had a heart attack in 1981 and Matthew Berger took over. Wanting to capitalize on the growing used car market, Berger focused more strongly on this segment, increasing inventory and salespeople. In 1985, new car business boomed. A new one-day record of 69 new car sales was set!

In 1988, Berger Chevrolet became the “pilot” dealership for a major facility upgrade. In 1990, used car space was doubled. Dale Berger Sr. passed away on Labor Day at the age 76. By 1991, Berger Chevrolet was 11th in Chevy new car sales nationwide. In 1994, Berger broke all sales records. By the end of the century, Berger had 150 employees and an annual payroll in excess of $5,000,000. Gross sales were $100,000,000! It was one of the oldest Chevy dealerships in the country, and one of the largest in sales volume.

 

Modern Muscle

In 2003, Berger decided to jump back into a revitalized market for high-performance cars. The company began building high performance “tuners” using the new 427-cid Chevy engine. “Matt Berger is Dale’s son and is behind the new effort,” Jim Luikens explained. “”They had a part and invited me in as a guest speaker and I discovered there are Berger people who remember the old days when R. Dale was a young, enthusiast and wasn’t afraid the roll the dice.”

Berger representatives have brought their company’s hot rod Camaros to the 2009 and 2010 Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals in Rosemont, Illinois. The 2010 venue featured five color-coded models-green, dark blue, red, orange and silver-with different upgrade Berger Supercar packages. The red car was a Dick Harrell Edition. The cars showcased the two Berger Supercar kits.

Package 1 includes a 6.2-liter 525-hp or supercharged 550-hp V-8, chambered stainless steel cat back exhaust, Forgeline three-piece modular wheels, special SS logos, Pirelli P-Zero tires, upgraded underpinnings, custom graphics, special floor mats, special Berger badging, engine dress-up parts and as fitted Berger SS car cover. Package II adds a color-keyed Heritage front grille, SS emblems, a three-piece blade type spoiler and on-the-hood horsepower call-outs.

Nickey Chicago’s 1969 Berger Beauty

The Chevrolet Camaro went on sale September 29, 1966 for the model year 1967 and was designed as a competing model to the very successful Ford Mustang. It shared its platform and major components with the Pontiac Firebird, which was also introduced in 1967.

This 1969 Camaro is from the Nickey Chicago Collection and was sold to Berger in 1969. It is a double COPO Camaro with the Rally Sport option. It recently underwent a 1,700-hour rotisserie restoration to original specifications with the work performed by Nyle Wing. The car’s original engine was rebuilt by Scott Tieman.

The car has a numbers-matching drive train and is loaded with options including the Yenko Sports Car Conversion Option. It has an M40 TH400 automatic transmission with chambered exhaust and Endura bumper. It is also equipped with a center console, power steering and a vinyl top. It is complete with restoration photos and full owner history. The car is registered with the Super Car Registry and is certified an authentic 9561 and 9737 COPO Camaro.

Central Office Production Order or COPO, was a way to acquire, generally unobtainable, special items, which were not listed as available on Chevrolet’s RPO/Regular production order spec sheets. COPO 9561 was the 427-cid Camaro iron block, RPO L72, which is rated at 425 hp. COPO 9737 was the Yenko Sport Car Conversion option, consisting of E70 X 15 tires on Rally wheels, a 140-mph speedometer and a one-inch stabilizer.

This car is a good example of the type of muscle machine that Berger Chevrolet would order for a handful of its customers, even though the dealership’s real specialty was selling high-performance parts.

 

 

A 2011 Berger Supercar Camaro in a “throwback” shade of metallic green.

 

2010 Dick Harrell Edition Berger Camaro carries No. 30 Berger serial number.

 

Dark Blue 2011 Berger Camaro has a sophisticated hi-po look.

 

A peak under the hood of a hot new 2011 Berger Camaro.

 

“Born in Detroit; Made Legendary in Grand Rapids!” Berger advertises.

 

Youthful racer Jim Luikens won Car Craft’s Hi-Riser Award.

 

Pioneering Berger ads featured part number listings and showed Jim Luikens.

 

Longtime car nut Jim Luikens was photographed on recent Route 66 trip.

 

COPO Camaro owned by Nickey was ordered by Berger Chevrolet in 1969.

 

Codes like this document the ’69 Berger Camaro as authentic.

 

COPO 9561 was the 427-cid Camaro iron block, RPO L72, rated at 425 hp.

 

’69 Berger-ordered Camaro has M40 TH400 automatic transmission.

 

Freshly restored ’69 Berger-ordered Camaro was recently auctioned.

 

Editor’s Note: Special thanks for help with this article to Jim Luikens, Stefano Bimbi, Anson Jaynes, Jon Comstock and the entire staff of Berger Chevrolet.

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